MELBOURNE, Australia — What were you doing when you were 15?
Sofia Kenin thought for a moment, just a moment, before answering.
Kenin thinks as she talks: quickly.
“Oh, my God, I was playing ITF juniors,” she said. “I wasn’t out there.”
“Out there” on Sunday was the Melbourne Arena, packed to the rafters for a fourth-round match at the Australian Open between Kenin and 15-year-old Coco Gauff.
It was an all-American duel on Australia Day, and to compare the reaction as the two Americans were introduced, it was clear that Gauff had the edge in support and name recognition.
But Kenin, a fierce and deft counterpuncher, still has the edge as a tennis player. Though Gauff rallied to win the first set in a tiebreaker, Kenin, the No. 14 seed, shrugged off that setback and systematically imposed her will and patterns to win, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0.
Gauff walked off court in tears.
“I think naturally when I lose, I’m just a bit emotional,” she said.
But winning had Kenin in tears as well, as she processed the feeling of reaching her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal.
At 21, Kenin, the daughter of Russian immigrants, is young for a tennis player in an era when Roger Federer and Serena Williams are still winning tournaments at 38.
But Gauff’s precocity skews the tennis timeline. Her age has become not only a talking point, but also a psychological edge as her opponents fight the voice in their heads reminding them that they cannot possibly lose to a 15-year-old.
Naomi Osaka, 22, no longer the defending champion here, made it clear that she had heard it as she melted into a puddle of unforced errors in her stunning third-round loss to Gauff.
Kenin, who had practiced with Gauff but never played her on tour, was well aware of the danger.
“Of course I understand the interest in Coco,” she said after the match. “She’s 15, and she’s playing at this level, which is great. But I knew I needed somehow to block everything out and just focus on myself, on my game and what I do best.”
That meant redirecting Gauff’s power deep and into the corners. That meant changing the pace with drop shots and crisp slices. That meant placing her serve effectively to limit the powerful Gauff’s ability to attack returns.
Kenin’s coach and father, Alexander Kenin, understood the danger as well, but he also sees potential pitfalls for Gauff as she becomes a celebrity before she becomes a legitimate Grand Slam contender.
“People make such a big fuss about it, and I’m not sure it is helping her,” he said of Gauff’s age as he worked his way back to the players lounge through the crowd exiting Melbourne Arena.
“I don’t think it’s going to help her in the long run,” he said. “But anyway, that creates some jitters among other players, and it’s not easy to play her. It was the story with Osaka, so basically Sofia was fighting more herself than the opponent.”
In Alexander Kenin’s view, Gauff still “has a lot of holes in her game.”
“Sonya was exploiting them pretty good,” he said, using his daughter’s nickname.
There are deficiencies, which is perfectly understandable at 15. Gauff’s forehand is not a pure stroke and can break down, as it did frequently in the final two sets on Sunday. Because of her extreme forehand grip, she is also vulnerable to low balls, and Kenin gave her plenty of them with her chopped groundstrokes.
Gauff’s taste for risk on her second serve has a downside: double faults. She had seven against Kenin, and she also needs to improve her backhand slice.
But there is also so much to celebrate: court coverage, serving power and a two-handed backhand that would all be remarkable for a player of any age. There are also the intangibles: poise, fighting spirit and an ability to embrace the big occasion in the game’s biggest stadiums.
“The thing I’m most proud of myself is how I handled it on the court,” Gauff said. “Even though today I lost a set 6-0, I was still believing I could win it. I don’t think I showed any negative emotion too much in the match. I just tried my best. I guess what surprised me is how calm I was going into all these matches.”
What were you doing at 15? Probably not answering questions in a news conference with this sort of perspective.
Gauff is remarkable even if the perils are clear. She and her family have said that she intends to be the greatest, and that they do not want to limit her horizons or ability to dream big.
The keys will be to avoid getting ahead of themselves, to take delight in the process instead of fixating on distant goals and to keep drawing lines between family life and professional life even with Gauff’s father, Corey, as a coach.
It will not be easy, particularly as the money rolls in, but Gauff and her team appear to be off to a fine start, limiting her interviews and putting the accent on the positive.
“I’m definitely going to savor this and continue to kind of build and get better to work for moments like this, moments like that last match,” she said, referring to her upset of Osaka. “Even today, even though I lost, I still had a lot of fun.”
Gauff has played in three Grand Slam tournaments in singles, reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon, the third round of the United States Open and the fourth round in Melbourne.
She will be ranked just outside the Top 50 next week, but will be allowed to play only one more tour event before turning 16, on March 13. She said that would be at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. But she is also permitted to play Fed Cup, the women’s team event, and could be selected to play for the United States when it faces Latvia in a World Group qualifying match in Everett, Wash., near Seattle on Feb. 7 and 8.
Kenin would like to be part of that team as well, and said that making the Olympic team was high on her list of goals for 2020. She is fast approaching the Top 10, and if she can defeat Ons Jabeur, 25, a flashy and unseeded shotmaker from Tunisia, in the quarterfinals, she will become the second-ranked American, behind only Serena Williams.
It is not easy to make a name for oneself with Williams and Cocomania in the mix. But Kenin, who upset Williams in the third round of last year’s French Open, is quite a talent herself and the only American women’s singles player left “out there” in the Australian Open.
“Now starts your hype,” a reporter said to her on Sunday night.
Kenin grinned and spread her arms. “Yeah, I guess,” she said. “I don’t know. Of course I didn’t do it for the hype. I did it for myself, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could.”
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